Spotlight: The Man Whelan and Convict Discipline (28 May 1855)

Tasmanian Colonist (Hobart Town, Tas. : 1851 – 1855), Monday 28 May 1855, page 2


This celebrated man will be put upon his trial for not only absconding, but for robbery with force and violence. An offence for which in this colony, if convicted, his life is forfeited. We have seen Whelan before to-day, or before his apprehension, and we cannot accord with those who would represent him as a ferocious looking man, whose very appearance would strike terror into the mind of the way farer. If he were one of those blood-thirsty beings which some would represent him, he would not have been apprehended as easily as he was. We do not regard him as a man of ordinary courage. We would put the term courage out of the question when speaking of such a man. He is the mere creature of a system, which never ought to obtain in any country, where pretensions to civilisation have been made. He has been for years the play-thing and sport of officials, who scarcely deserve the name of men. Many years ago he was sentenced to transportation beyond the seas for a limited period. That sentence did not say one word about the petty tyranny which has been practised upon him and upon his fellows, under the name of prison discipline. Those who are conversant with the history of Botany Bay, at the time when Whelan was sent there, will be free to acknowledge, that it was not a convict paradise. We have conversed with many men who were transported to New South Wales, and although some of the convicts became wealthy, others had to endure great hardships, and the most downright tyranny which could be practised. When this tyranny was exercised by the master to whom the convict was assigned, there was no redress for the unfortunate. The magistracy always upheld the masters in their cruelty. If a prisoner happened to get into good employment and turned out successful, this fact was blazoned forth in England, and transportation was thus held out as a boon to the young thief at home, to induce him to become bolder and more expert in his profession. This operated differently in the colonies. Whelan like others, saw that some of his copartners in crime got on well, while he was enduring tyranny. His uncontrolled spirit rebelled against such a state of things. Some of his comrades escaped to the bush, and remained away from the townships until their periods of transportation had expired, and then returned to claim their freedom and to settle down quietly to the ordinary business of life. Whelan made his escape in Sydney, and was taken sentenced, and sent to Norfolk Island. He was there in the days of Captain Maconochy, and any person who knows anything about convictism must know that if that excellent man was allowed to exercise his own judgment in the management of the prisoners, he would have carried out a system reformatory in its nature; but he was not permitted to do it, so far as Sydney prisoners were concerned. Whelan was in Norfolk Island in the days of Major Child, who was no more fit for the situation in which he was placed, than a child of ten years old, if what we have learned respecting him was true. Whelan was in Norfolk Island in the days of John Price. In a word he was there in the days of the Spread Eagle, the period of diurnal flogging, and of repeated gagging. He was there when those scenes occurred, to which the Rev. Mr. Rogers referred, and for doing which, that poor man endured a fearful amount of persecution from all parties in this colony who were in the receipt of large government salaries. There was not, to the best of our belief, any description of punishment practised on Norfolk Island from which Whelan escaped. He must be a very bad fellow indeed! is the exclamation of those who know nothing about discipline at a penal settlement. We have ourselves seen men sentenced to two or three months’ imprisonment to hard labour in chains, for having in their possession a bit of tobacco, not one-fourth of a fig. We know that convict constables have been instructed to open the mouths of the men working in chains, to ascertain whether they had been chewing tobacco, and if they could scrape a bit off a man’s tooth, that was a good charge against him. When once we begin to think over this system, we feel indignant at the men who carry it out, and at the parties, whoever they are, who can in any way sanction such refined cruelty. When we see men like Whelan and Driscol take to the bush, we do not wonder at it. We only wonder the number of bushrangers is not larger. When we see a man like Whelan easily arrested, we do not wonder at it. Tyranny and slavery make men cowards; they do not reform them. The system of discipline adopted by the present convict authorities cannot be known in England; it is such, that if we were to return and lecture there on it, we are confident we should raise such a storm of indignation against the government which could tolerate it, as would be astounding, in any country where the English language is understood. By facts and figures we have proved that convict labour is the dearest that can be obtained, and we are prepared to prove that convict discipline is a tissue of cruelty from beginning to end; yea, that the most refined cruelties have heen practised in the name of the late Lieutenant-Governor, whether with or without his consent we will not pretend to say. We mention this to put Sir H. F. Young on his guard.